September 17, 2019

The Joy in Special Needs

I’m writing this blog post with the strains of “Hava Nagila” coming from the TV where my son Danny is about to watch his fourth viewing of the eponymous film, an uplifting, entertaining documentary about how the song orginated, it's international history, and why we all love to hate it.

Given Danny’s past video viewing habits, he won’t be ready to move on to a new DVD until he has completely soaked in every word and nuance, and then it will become a reference point for every future time he hears the song, whether it is at a wedding or a 10 second piece of video on You Tube. In other words, I will soon be humming “Hava Nagila” in my sleep.

With our Jewish calendar turning into the month of Adar II on Monday, March 3rd, when the holiday of Purim is celebrated, we are told that “When Adar arrives, joy increases.” According to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College website, RitualWell, our “Tradition teaches that Adar is so full of joy that it is as if Adar were pregnant with happiness.”

When a family first hears that their son or daughter has been diagnosed with significant special needs or a disability, it is hard to imagine that there will be much joy in the home.  Friends and family talk about the diagnosis in hushed, serious tones. Internet searches often end in despair. After all, this child will be, by definition, different than peers, and have to work extra hard to learn what comes naturally to typically developing children. There will be extra expenses for out of pocket medical costs, therapies and babysitters/aides. Dreams and wishes will have to be discarded, and who knows what will replace them? Who could find any joy with any of this?

Yet, there can be happiness, and even moments of joy. There are often family “inside jokes” and a wicked sense of humor can often be the best defense against senseless rules and the red tape of government bureaucracies. Many of our kids are drawn to music, dance and movies with happy endings.  You learn pretty quickly that is better to laugh than cry at many of the absurd situations that life throws at you when you are parenting a child with special needs.

Approaching special needs with from a place of happiness has deep Jewish roots. As Tevye sings in “Fiddler in the Roof”, “God would like to us to be joyful even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.” So, as we close out Jewish Disability Awareness Month in February and move into the crazy, upside-down fun of Adar II and Purim, it is a good reminder that this is a good time to dig deep and find our own inner joy.